One of the prejudices I managed to nurture throughout my previous mainline church experience was the notion that evangelicals have a sub-standard intellectual tradition. I thought that most of them just didn't want to really think about faith. (I mean, why else would they believe in the pesky doctrine of the sovereignty of God?)
I was introduced to the error of my ways about three years ago when I encountered a faith community of women at the now-defunct Choosing Home. For the most part, these were stay-at-home mothers who were...how can I say this correctly... not in the least bit dumb. I don't want to use "intellectual giants" because probably none of them would accept such a description of themselves, but suffice to say, their knowledge of the Bible, theology (both theoretical and applied), and church history just amazed and astounded me. I was brought up short in front of a false picture of evangelicals I had painted and hung off to the side of my faith journey. What I had created was not real. It was a convenient portrayal so I could disregard the hard questions I would inevitably be asked.
Our family has been participating in an evangelical church (Evangelical Mennonite is the best description, or at least the most well-known) for the last five months. Today, our adult Sunday School class, which involved about 25 adults from the ages of 20-40, engaged in a spirited, intellectual discussion about Calvin. I was amazed that laypeople, and not just a few laypeople, but many of those in the room, not only knew who Calvin was, but knew more about theology and the differences in the theology than I did. Their comments revealed an intellectual curiousity about faith that indicated that this discussion was not their first introduction to theological debate. And this was no milquetoast discussion; it was passionate, and complex. There was never a convergence of opinion/ belief -- some of the theology introduced was pretty liberal, some pretty conservative -- but it was an incredibly respectful discussion. It was completely unlike any conversation I've had at church, ever. It was, frankly, exhilarating.
When Dennis and I processed it verbally after church together, we realized two things...
1.) This church expects a certain level of literacy from followers of Christ. The expectation is informal, but it is there. It begins with Biblical literacy, but extends to a basic knowledge of different theologies, Christian traditions and world religions. Dennis mentioned today that he has been incredibly impressed by the knowledge possessed by laypeople in the congregation. I hadn't really thought about it much, but when he mentioned it, I realized how extraordinary this level of knowledge is, particularly in the light of my second realization, which will probably get me into trouble...
2.) I have been confronted again and again with the fact that, in large part, the mainline church is failing its people when it comes to really connecting the mind with the process of faith. I'm not sure where it was that it became a joke that we don't read the Bible. It should be incite a great sense of shame, I think. What mainline illiteracy has produced is a laity that is dependent on ministers to not only illuminate, but also introduce basic Biblical concepts. This allows for only a very narrow thread of theology to be discussed and considered amongst the people. Because hardly anyone, including pastors, are secure in Biblical knowledge, there is almost no ability to produce an intellectual discussion, let alone a classical argument/counter-argument. Debate doesn't exist. And when it does, it generally isn't very respectful. Bottom line -- the conversation I experienced this morning simply couldn't have taken place in the churches of which I've been a part or with which I'm familiar. And that's primarily because of a basic lack of necessary education.
So, I've realized again how ridiculous my former prejudice is. It turns out that picture I painted of someone who did little to move beyond preformed suppositions and did less to challenge one's faith intellectually, was the mainline me. The sub-standard Christian intellectual tradition was mine.
I was schooled again today. At church. It was a wonderful thing.